Iraqis celebrate U.S. strike on Soleimani

Interesting, although if there’s any shining lesson of the Iraq war it’s that sect matters. Are we watching Iraqi Shiites celebrating in the clip on nationalist grounds, their country freed at last from being under Soleimani’s (if not Iran’s) thumb? Or are we watching Iraqi Sunnis, overjoyed at the news that the most sinister Shiite terrorist in the world was at that moment splattered across an access road outside Baghdad’s airport?

If this is a nationalist thing then maybe Soleimani’s death will be a galvanizing moment for Iraqi unity. If this is a sectarian thing, hoo boy.

If you’re a Sunni Arab, a Kurd, a Christian, an Israeli — anyone in the region, really, apart from a Shiite fundamentalist — why wouldn’t you be celebrating? Unless you’re understandably afraid of how Iran will respond, I mean.

Here’s another clip. Do I recognize that face on one of the placards being carried?

That sure looks like our old friend Muqtada al-Sadr, which means the guy carrying it is a Shiite. That’s surprising at first blush, especially if you followed the sectarian bloodletting day to day during the worst hours of the Iraq war. Iran was the patron of Iraqi Shiites in that conflict; since when do Iraqi Shiites cheer the demise of that country’s most formidable warrior, the tip of Tehran’s spear against the region’s Sunnis?

Well, times change. I recommend this Times piece from November as a quick backgrounder on the months of protests in Iraq last year that ended up forcing out the prime minister and involving Soleimani in the country’s political crisis. Having Iran as a patron in the middle of a sectarian war is one thing, having Iran as a sovereign over the country in perpetuity is quite another. Iraqis, and not just Iraqi Sunnis, were fed up:

While the 1920 revolution was ultimately defeated, the sentiment that drove it, the rejection of foreign influence, remains embedded in the Iraqi psyche. A century ago the target was the British; in the early 2000s, it was the Americans that ran afoul of Iraqi nationalism; now it is Iran…

As the United States retreated from Iraq after 2009, the Iranian-linked parties extended their networks inside the government. In 2014 when the Islamic State invaded, it was Iran that rushed to Iraq’s rescue, helping form militias to fight the militants and by 2018 becoming so powerful that political parties linked to Iran became the kingmakers in the government…

Meanwhile, at the grass-roots level and among the country’s young people, there was a growing sense that Iran was profiting at the expense of Iraq. While often exaggerated, the complaints have become part of the political backdrop to the protests.

“All of our budget goes to Iran to support” the Revolutionary Guards, said Ali Jassim, a construction worker, as he washed tear gas out of his eyes below the Jumhuriya Bridge, where the demonstrations are focused.

Trump tried to leverage that frustration in a pair of tweets this morning, replying to the Iraqi government’s threat to kick U.S. troops out of the country:

So, yeah, in the celebrations aren’t a purely sectarian thing (although no doubt Iraq’s Sunnis are happier this afternoon than its Shiites are). They appear to be a nationalist reaction, which makes it fitting that Sadr would turn up on a poster at last night’s demonstration. He’s always been identified with Iraqi nationalism, a Shiite who’s not quite as beholden to Iran as some other Iraqi political leaders are.

But he’s also no fool. Iraq is obviously a prime staging ground for potential Iranian retaliation against the U.S. and its Sunni allies, and a Quds Force that’s been wounded may seek to tighten its grip on Iraqi politics instead of letting go. Celebrating Soleimani’s demise would be a dangerous move by an Iraqi leader. So Sadr was out early this morning with a message of condolence to Iran and an order to “all mujahideen, especially the Mehdi Army, Promised Day Brigade, and all patriotic and disciplined groups to be ready to protect Iraq.” Iraqis on the street may be happy, but how many of sufficient notoriety that they might risk reprisals from Iran for celebrating are willing to show their relief? Even the Israeli government is subdued today, not wanting to attract any extra attention from Tehran. The people who took to the streets last night in Baghdad had balls.

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